Many families hold high hopes that today’s symbolic gesture of an apology by the Australian Parliament to the “Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal people who were forcibly removed from their families and communities will ignite an instinct for inclusion, not segregation, which will spill over to other marginalized groups in Australia. Like people with disabilities.
The parallels between indigenous Australians and families of children with disabilities are clear. Many share the same battles of social and educational exclusion, struggle for financial and emotional survival and the prospect of a bleak, segregated, unemployable future.
Senator Neville Bonner, Australia’s first indigenous politician said that change will come only when non-indigenous Australians take the time to listen to what indigenous Australians say they need. Let’s apply the same concept to people with disabilities, starting with education.
In Australia’s various state-based education systems there is still an unthinking acceptance by many apparently compassionate people of the practice of segregating children with various disabilities away from other children, by placing them in “special” schools and classes.
Families are still routinely told by educators that their children with disabilities need “special education” teachers who have “special” skills in teaching these “special needs” kids. But how does segregation from the rest of the world benefit children now, or prepare them to participate to the best of their ability in society in the future? And why do they need to be segregated from other children to be educated?
I suspect this first resort to segregation used to reflect an unspoken assumption that children with disabilities don’t deserve to be fully included in schools, and later in society. They are too different, too far outside the mainstream. We don’t value their diversity. We don’t recognize their humanity. It’s just too hard.
Increasingly some children with disabilities are included in some mainstream classes and leisure activities at school. But many are still educated in separate classrooms designated as “special” education. Yet special education was intended to be an array of tools to cater to the differing needs of a diversity of students, not a separate educational setting.
Families must have the right to choose their children’s educational setting – including a segregated setting – based on their child’s needs. But we also should demand evidence from educators if they suggest segregation, not inclusion.
We could ask: “What supports does my child need to actively engage in learning and socializing with her peers at school?” Instead of: “How can my child fit in to a mainstream school?”
Then the education systems must supply those supports, not leave teachers or students to struggle without them. It could be as simple as installing a hearing loop, supplying a laptop, or organizing and monitoring a friendship group. Or more complex support structures to maximize the learning potential of a child with multiple disabilities.
My son has a physical disability and can’t hold a pen to write. Does that mean he can’t learn? Well yes, if the school doesn’t acknowledge that he needs different learning tools. Radical tools🙂 like a laptop and maths software. Does his education require separation from his friends to maximize his learning? Personally I don’t see a connection between maths software and segregated classrooms. And while ramps will get him some places, they don’t actually educate him.
At school, like every other child, he needs teachers who take the time to get to know him and work with his learning style. He needs an education system which supplies the supports that enable him to participate actively in learning. And he needs to be part of big melting pot of diverse, dynamic kids. That’s called democracy.
May Australia’s apology to our indigenous people mark a turning point where we instinctively welcome diversity and never again assume we need to automatically segregate anyone who is “different”.